A lot has changed in the internet world since Jan 1st. 1983, a date often referred to as the “birthday of the Internet.” Yet the basic structure of the Internet—the communications protocol that allows networks of computers around the world to communicate—remains the same. This is because of the design that Vint Cerf drew on the back of an envelope while meeting with computer scientist Robert Kahn in a Palo Alto cabana nearly 50 years ago.
“Bob and I were like two hands on one pencil,” said Dr. Cerf, 79, on video from his home in McLean, Va., wearing his usual three-piece suit. “We had a Stanford secretary write it, and what did we do with the original manuscript? We threw it away! Historians have never forgiven me,” he added with a laugh.
“Cerf is still looking for ways to get more people online and improve safety and security.“
This establishment made Dr. Cerf received awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which he received with Dr. Kahn in 2005 for creating the software code that “transformed commerce, communication and entertainment around the world.” As Google’s vice president and Chief Internet Evangelist, a position he has held since 2005, Dr. Cerf is still looking for ways to get more people online and improve safety and security. “The Internet can be abused,” he allows, nodding to how it helps spread misinformation and misinformation. To solve this “distribution problem,” he says, companies like Google need to “better understand how these trends influence people’s behavior.”
When he grew up in the Los Angeles area, Dr. Cerf was 10 years old when he decided he wanted to be a scientist. He enjoyed learning about inventors and working with chemists to make them explode: “I’ll tell you, the chemistry sets of 1953 had things you would never find today.” In 1957, the Soviet Union’s surprise launch of Sputnik, the Earth’s first artificial satellite, led to a major federal push to teach more science and technology in US public schools. He says: “I got the benefit of that. At Van Nuys High School, he took accelerated programs in math, chemistry and physics and graduated as class valedictorian in 1961.
Computers fascinated Dr. Cerf as a child. He was 15 when his father, a hardware salesman who served in the Navy during World War II, took him to see the first computer called SAGE, an automated environment. He was impressed by how it used radar and a distributed network of computer systems to distinguish between Russian bombers and Canadian geese coming over the North Pole. With Steve Crocker, my Van Nuys classmate and future colleague, Dr. Cerf would play with computers at nearby UCLA. “We used a Bendix G-15 paper-tape computer to calculate extracurricular activities before anyone else in high school had access to computers,” he recalls wistfully. “That was a big deal.”
Before going to Stanford to study mathematics on a scholarship, Dr. Cerf spent six months at Rocketdyne, a rocket engine design and manufacturing company, where he wrote software to analyze tests on the F-1 engines needed to propel rockets into space. He says: “I worked on the Apollo program in a small way, but for me it was very exciting.
After taking “every computing class” he could at Stanford, Dr. Cerf graduated in 1965 and returned to Los Angeles to work at IBM..
“Computer magic creates the world and you control it, but then you find that it does what you tell it to do, not always what you want it to do,” he explains. “I discovered early on that creating bugs was easy and finding them was difficult.” To learn more about the basics, he went to UCLA for a master’s degree in computer science in 1970 and a doctorate in 1972.
Dr. Cerf has been using hearing aids since he was 13 years old. He recalls: “I was just getting girls, and it happened when you took your hearing aids out that they were ringing, but when you took them off you couldn’t talk. , which was not easy.” He credits his disability for forcing him to work for companies that invested in the development of e-mail and for introducing him to his wife, Sigrid, whom he met in 1965 because they lived with an ear salesman. On their first date he told her that one of his favorite paintings, a wall-sized Kandinsky at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, looked like a floating green burger. He says: “Fortunately for me, he decided that I could be fixed; they married in 1966 and have two sons.
While at UCLA, Dr. Cerf was swept up in what would become the precursor to the Internet. The Advanced Research Projects Agency, another post-Sputnik government effort to drive technological innovation (later renamed the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA), sought a way to reduce costs and accelerate progress in computer science and artificial intelligence through networking various university computers. together. With a team led by his high school friend Dr. Crocker, Dr. Cerf helped create the system that allowed different computers to exchange data and email over a network called ARPANET. “We were breaking new ground,” he says of the early days. “Yes, I was involved in this and I did not escape.”
In 1973, Dr. Cerf was a professor at Stanford and Dr. Kahn was at DARPA when they began working on a protocol flexible enough for ARPANET to communicate with military units around the world, including the front lines. They developed a new design for Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) within six months, spent the next few years refining it, and demonstrated it in late 1977. Dr. Cerf remembers jumping up and saying, “It works! It works!” “Whenever software works it’s a miracle,” he explains.
In early 1983, a select few operating systems around the world switched to TCP/IP, marking the beginning of what is now the Internet. To accelerate its spread, Dr. Cerf and Dr. Kahn decided not to exercise its authority or the government declared it separate. “We wanted it to be world class,” he explains.
Internet monetization efforts, which soon included more than 3,000 national labs and universities, began to emerge in 1989. Dr. Cerf recalls learning that a two-story display of telecommunications equipment from Cisco Systems cost about a quarter of a million dollars. “I thought, holy cow, someone has to think they’re going to make money online!” Internet commerce has expanded its reach, but Dr. Cerf acknowledges the downside, noting that feedback algorithms seem to steer people toward “more divisive and extreme things.”
He says users need more tools to “protect our safety and security and privacy” and that businesses should do more to control trolling, bullying, spoofing and online censorship. But Dr. Cerf insists there is no easy fix for technology. “This is a social and psychological problem as well,” he said. “We need to think critically.” Bugs are, after all, people, too.
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